Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was born into a prominent family in Montgomery, Alabama, on July 24, 1900. The youngest of six children, Zelda was the beloved child of Judge Anthony Dickinson Sayre and Minnie Machen Sayre. Raised in a wealthy, conservative household, Zelda lived a life of privilege, yet her rebellious spirit and penchant for pushing boundaries defied the traditional expectations of Southern gentility.
Zelda’s early life was marked by her unbridled spirit and a desire for more than her small-town roots could offer. Her charisma and vivacious personality drew admirers from all walks of life. She was the quintessential belle of the ball, popular in Montgomery’s social circles, and with her striking beauty and daring personality, Zelda stood out as a force to be reckoned with.
The Roaring Twenties: The Union of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald
Zelda’s life took a dramatic turn when she met F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1918. He was a young soldier stationed at a nearby army base, Camp Sheridan, and aspiring writer, while she was a high-spirited 18-year-old with dreams of her own. Their whirlwind romance was passionate and tumultuous, a foreshadowing of the life they would share together.
Despite concerns from Zelda’s family about Scott’s lack of financial stability, the two married in 1920 after the publication of Fitzgerald’s first novel, “This Side of Paradise.” Their union marked the beginning of a partnership that would encapsulate the spirit, excesses, and ultimately, the disillusionment of the Jazz Age.
Life in the Spotlight: The Fitzgeralds’ Rise to Fame
The Fitzgeralds’ life was transformed with Scott’s rising fame. They became the poster couple for the Jazz Age, embodying its glamour and excess. However, this newfound fame brought with it a host of challenges. Zelda, once the center of her own social circle, was now often relegated to the role of “Fitzgerald’s wife,” a situation that resulted in a growing restlessness and dissatisfaction.
As Scott’s success soared, so did their lifestyle. The couple was known for their extravagant parties, their flamboyant behavior, and their frequent moves between the United States and Europe. Yet the glittering facade hid a darker reality. The pressures of fame, the strain of their volatile relationship, and Zelda’s growing frustration at her overshadowed ambitions began to take a toll.
Zelda’s Journey into Motherhood
In 1921, Zelda gave birth to their only child, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald. Motherhood brought a new dynamic to Zelda’s life. While she loved her daughter, she struggled with the expectations and constraints this role imposed. Zelda, who had always sought out the freedom to live life on her terms, now found herself bound by the duties of motherhood.
The years following Scottie’s birth were also marked by an increasing tension between Zelda and Scott. Zelda’s desire for independence, her aspirations to establish herself as an artist, and Scott’s jealousy and control over her creative output added more strain to their already troubled marriage.
Zelda and Ernest Hemingway
The tension in the Fitzgeralds’ marriage was further exacerbated by the introduction of Ernest Hemingway into their lives. Scott admired Hemingway greatly, and they developed a close friendship. Zelda, however, had a less favorable impression of the celebrated writer.
Zelda and Hemingway clashed from their first meeting. Hemingway viewed Zelda as a distraction, an obstacle in Scott’s literary path, and openly criticized her influence over him. Zelda, on the other hand, found Hemingway’s macho persona and his influence on Scott distasteful. Their mutual dislike added another layer of complexity to the Fitzgeralds’ already tumultuous relationship.
Zelda’s Battle with Alcohol and Mental Illness
Zelda’s life began to unravel in the late 1920s. The glamour and excess of the Jazz Age was taking its toll on her health and her marriage. She developed a dependency on alcohol, which led to erratic behavior, frequent fights with Scott, and a decline in her physical health.
Her mental health also deteriorated. In 1930, Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a term that at the time was used broadly to describe a range of mental illnesses. The bright, vivacious woman who had once been the life of the party was now trapped in a world of her own, battling inner demons that were increasingly taking control.
Zelda’s Struggles and Institutionalization
The last decade of Zelda’s life was marked by frequent hospitalizations and periods of relative stability followed by devastating relapses. Her marriage with Scott was strained to its limits. Scott’s alcoholism worsened and his health declined, while Zelda’s condition remained unstable.
Despite her struggles, Zelda sought solace in her art. She wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, “Save Me the Waltz,” and continued to paint, finding in these creative pursuits a measure of peace and a means to express her inner turmoil.
Zelda’s Tragic End
Zelda’s life ended in tragedy on March 10, 1948, when a fire broke out in the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where she was a patient. Zelda, along with eight other women, was trapped in the hospital’s upper floors and died in the fire.
The once vibrant woman who had embodied the spirit and excesses of the Jazz Age was gone, her life cut short in a horrific accident. The tragic downfall of Zelda Fitzgerald serves as a stark reminder of the destructive effects of fame, alcoholism, and mental illness, but also of the indomitable spirit of a woman who refused to be confined by societal norms, and who sought to forge her own identity in a world that often tried to define her merely as “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife.”
Zelda’s Posthumous Recognition
Zelda’s tragic death did not signal the end of her story. In the years following her demise, there has been a renewed interest in her life and works. She is increasingly recognized as an artist in her own right, with her paintings exhibited, her writings published, and her life story told through biographies and films.
Her novel, “Save Me the Waltz,” written during one of her hospital stays, is now considered a significant work in its own right, reflecting the unique perspective of a woman navigating the complexities of fame, marriage, and mental illness in the Roaring Twenties.
Zelda’s artwork, largely created during her time in mental institutions, is also recognized for its unique style and emotional depth. Her paintings and paper dolls offer a poignant glimpse into the mind of a woman battling severe mental illness, yet continually striving to express herself creatively.
Zelda Fitzgerald’s life was a journey marked by highs and lows, a roller-coaster ride through fame, excess, mental illness, and tragedy. As F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, she was the muse behind some of his greatest works. As an individual, she was a woman ahead of her time, pushing against societal norms, fighting for her own creative voice, and struggling with personal demons that ultimately led to her tragic downfall.
Her story serves as a reminder of the dual nature of the Jazz Age — the glitz and glamour on one side, and the darkness and despair on the other. Yet, through it all, Zelda Fitzgerald remains an enduring figure, a woman whose life, as chaotic and tragic as it was, continues to fascinate, inspire, and caution us, an indomitable spirit etched forever in the annals of literary history.